I have played a lot of horror games this year, as I do every year. Fundamentally, many of them scare me in the same way, as I’m typically dodging around some force, seen or unseen, and have to use the game’s mechanics to the best of my ability to get through. It’s a good formula, one that’s had me lying in bed with my eyes jammed shut out of fear of finding something looking back at me when I open them. Still, these are games where I can trust the mechanics and my knowledge of them. I may be chased by some weird creature, but it follows rules I understand. One game changed the way I felt fear this year, taking the gameplay itself and turning it into a source of doubt and confusion. Never before have I put down the controller, genuinely crushed from not knowing what to do or how to stop myself from being killed. Only Knock Knock from Ice-pick Lodge has ever accomplished anything like it, and to me, that easily makes it the most important horror game of 2013.
Knock Knock isn’t just some simple haunted house game. You have to dodge ghosts and creatures, but it is not so cut and dry. The game is purposefully vague about what you can do to get away from the creatures that haunt you. Does hiding help keep the monsters from killing you? Sometimes it does, but at other times the ghosts will home right in on your hiding spot and grab you anyway. Does turning the lights on keep the ghosts at bay? In some instances it sure seemed to be the case, but at other times it wouldn’t matter and they would come charging in anyway. This isn’t a case of randomized rules, either. The rules are set in stone, but the game never, ever clarifies them for the player. Your job is to figure out what works and what doesn’t before the night is out. If you do, then you live long enough to move on.
This would probably be frustrating in any other game, but it works amazingly well for a horror game. Horror games live on confusion and feelings of inadequacy. The more you feel that you measure up to the challenges you’re about to face, the less likely you’re going to be afraid of them. If you don’t feel like you can handle the creature that’s making those footsteps outside the door, you’re not going to want to get anywhere near them. You become afraid of the creatures because you know how hard it will be to survive contact. This is typically achieved by putting the player against difficult creatures such as in Clock Tower or Amnesia, and those games are terrifying as a result. Still, you know that you can run and maybe even hide. You are given some small tools that will let you survive, and your mind slips to them the moment you’re in danger. You can be petrified, but you have the tools to cope.
Knock Knock takes those tools away, or at least obscures them enough to make them into an additional challenge for the players. It is akin to having to play Clock Tower with a keyboard that changes which button makes you run depending on unknown variables. There is a way to get away from your enemies, but it’s never made clear enough that you can trust it completely. This makes the terror completely crushing, as you can’t just fall back on familiar tools when you get into a panic. This often resulted in complete breakdowns where I would literally scream “What am I supposed to do?” while the creatures descended on me. Knock Knock would actually break me down while I played it, my mind fighting terror and confusion and failing miserably.
It’s not impossible to figure it out, though, and is in fact a rewarding part of playing the game. It’s rare that a game makes discovering its mechanics into such an important and satisfying part, and couching this idea in a horror game worked really well. Having to figure out a game’s mechanics while trying to play it is normally a frustrating experience if the game is purposefully hiding them, but in a haunted house setting it just clicks. If you’d been suddenly left in a supernatural situation, how would you react, after all? What could you even do against a ghost if it were real? How could you get away? How much of your fear would turn into a blind panic while your mind struggled to make sense of things and figure out what to do? Many horror games stop at the fear you would feel in these situations, and only Knock Knock goes further into making you feel that confusion and helplessness at not know what to do in that situation as well.
Ice-pick Lodge did an incredible job charting relatively new territory in horror, playing around with interesting new ideas to use to scare people. It’s one of the more challenging horror experiences I’ve ever faced, and that sensation of full-body relief you feel when dawn breaks is something I’ll always remember when I think about the game. Moreso, I’ll remember that crushing feeling of fear and panic as I hear a bulb breaking in the distance, knowing something is coming but having no clue what to do to save myself from it.
Knock Knock is available for $9.99 on Steam.